Talat Harb Street on the Day of Anger - Friday, January 28, 2011
My name is Melinda Holmes, I am a U.S. citizen living in Cairo and I am choosing to stay here through the revolution. I came to Egypt three months ago to learn Arabic while in the application process for graduate school. I am working in an NGO that provides legal aid for refugees seeking resettlement. I had previously travelled in Egypt and I choose to come here to study because I love this country and its people. These are the same reasons I am choosing to stay, these and the feeling that I have a responsibility not only to the vulnerable communities we serve through my organization but also to my country, to be a cultural ambassador at a time when our government is failing miserably.
I live in downtown Cairo in an area called Bab el Louk. My building is on the corner of Falaki and Mohamed Mahmoud streets, an area which saw arguably the most intense fighting between the state security forces and protesters who were trying to reach the Ministry of Interior building. Friday night I returned home with my head full of tear gas only to be trapped on my roof for more than 6 hours as police and protesters pushed back and forth up and down Mohamed Mahmoud street. Vehicles were lit on fire and tear gas and rubber bullets flew. The police had no supplies and so I watched form my roof as they tore apart one, then a second an finally the last kiosk on our street, out of desperation for food and water. I also watched as they caught demonstrators, witnessing the blatantly inhumane treatment that is the status quo for the Egyptian police. However I was also lucky to witness the most amazing feat of leadership I have ever seen, one that stays with me until now despite these dramatic days and forms the basis for my opinion of the Egyptian army and my understanding of this conflict.
Two soldiers approached several hours into the fighting from behind the police line, they were aloof, surveying the scene with a removed, seemingly objective demeanor. Then they walked away into the night. Not more than an hour later, after renewed fighting during which the factions had concentrated their ranks, the protesters began to advance from the dim light of Tahrir square led by five soldiers. The police fired tear gas and shot in the air, some demonstrators began to throw rocks, the soldiers didn’t flinch. These five men made clear for me in an instant the reason for the love they receive from the Egyptian people. They alone, with out tanks or artillery, held back the mass of demonstrators, no less than a hundred and forced the police to cease firing upon them. Together with the protesters they pushed the police into a side street reestablishing the barrier there and ordering them to go home. I went down to the street after with my friends to bring them food and water, only then realizing that they were hardly more than 18 years old yet held the respect that short of age only a highly functional institution can create.
My experiences during the days since have corroborated this impression. In their absence the following night my building was overrun, protesters threw rocks from our roof inviting live gunfire from police and I spent my night with all the furniture piled against the door, my Iraqi flatmate screaming at me to get away from the windows. Until the army took over the protection of the Ministry of the Interior the violent swirl around my building persisted so that now heavy machine gun fire and burning cars have become somehow normal to me. I witnessed the behavior of the police for four days before they fled, it was enough to know the fear and disgust that every Egyptian holds for them. I have known the army’s presence now for six days and despite its slow reaction to the attacks from pro-Mubarak supporters my belief in the Egyptian army holds strong. A soldier’s presence has come to equal safety and tanks rolling through the streets are a sight for sore eyes.
I was sitting with my comrades in a cafe in El Bursa – the pedestrian area of downtown normally bursting with people in lawn chairs smoking shisha and drinking tea – when President Mubarak spoke Tuesday night. There was a soldier there taking a break, the people falling over themselves to offer him hospitality and then leaving him in peace with his teas and sandwich. He sat passively with out concern his eyes red with fatigue. Watching the rapt faces of these people when the address began, I panned the crowd looking into eyes of every color that for once weren’t looking back at me. There was cheering at his declaration not to run next year and then as the words continued and took on a familiar and farcical tone there was jeering, laughter and finally the whole place erupted in chants moving back toward Tahrir, barely waiting for the speech to be over. The elation of near success was clear. If the atmosphere was positive and festive during that day then at night it was a party. Remembering this now is hard as our hearts have fallen so far in the two days since.
By midday yesterday the pro-Mubarak protests were swelling. Internet had returned, curfew was relaxed, the government was doing everything it could to make it seems like everything was over, so why were we so sad? Not because Mubarak could stay for another 9 months, but because weaving our way through the throngs of “pro-government protesters” suddenly showing up in the streets equipped with all the paraphernalia of protest that took the activists in Tahrir days to develop organically, it felt like the effort had lost some of its soul. The men who surrounded our car as it plodded through the crowd wore blood thirsty looks on their faces and were already beginning to go after other Egyptians. By the time our taxi found its way to our Tahrir street where we live, discharging us with the food salvaged from fleeing foreigners that we will try to distribute to the refugees, our hearts were in the soles of our feet.
Soon reports began to stream in about the identities, affiliations, and motivations of this “pro-Mubarak” camp and we regained some hope, exhausted from the roller coaster of emotion. Due to mounting reports about attacks on reporters and arrests of foreigners we were unable to go out today. We postponed our plans to visit the Somali refugee community in Ardiwila, which with no army presence in the neighborhood is even more vulnerable than usual and facing threats of eviction, cutting off of cooking gas, and even occasionally being turned away from food shops. We don’t yet know when we will be able to reach them.
I will go now. My Egyptian friend and colleague, Osama, has just returned to our friend Amir’s flat, which is serving as our revolution headquarters, from bringing tea to the solider outside. He has brought with him cold medicine for me, as I am fighting something I probably got from sharing water with a hundred thousand demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The soldier had taken over the checkpoint from the locals as their nerves are shot and they are beginning to harass everyone who passes mercilessly. The soldier, who likes to be called “Fayoumi” (meaning someone who comes from Fayoum), said he was tired of the people there and so he escorted my friend to a pharmacy. After two days of uncertainty and my first real apprehension about staying here in Cairo, I will sleep well tonight and dream about what tomorrow may bring.